By Rob Burgess
— When I filed my Black Friday column Nov. 21, 2012, “Caveat emptor; seriously, be careful,” I outlined my previous affinity for the traditional beginning of the Christmas shopping season. I still enjoy Thanksgiving, but my fondness for Black Friday waned considerably after the Great Recession hit. After which, both consumers and retailers took the gloves off.
In 2008, a Walmart employee in New York was trampled to death. In 2010, a Wisconsin woman threatened to shoot anyone who questioned her cutting in line. In 2011, a Los Angeles woman doused a crowd assembled around a mound of discounted Xbox systems with pepper spray. All that was bad enough, but what I didn’t account for last year was the consequence of large retailers increasingly breaking with established protocol.
Since 2011, more and more have been opening Thanksgiving Day proper instead of waiting for some early-morning Friday hour. The net impact of this change immediately qualified every retail employee unlucky enough to have to work one of these sales for combat-style hazard pay, if you ask me.
“Authorities believe a disagreement over a parking space led to two people being shot and wounded outside a Walmart in Tallahassee, Fla.,” reported the Associated Press Nov. 23, 2012. One year, later, at another Walmart, a very similar scene played itself out in Claypool Hill, Va. “[Sheriff Brian Hieatt said] two men, Ronnie Sharp, 61, Russell County, and Christopher Jackson, 35, Jewell Ridge in Tazewell County, were arguing over a parking space,” reported WVVA’s Kristen Connor Nov. 28. “This escalated into a threat with a firearm, and then … Sharp used a knife to cut Jackson in the arm, slicing down to the bone.”
Due to the schedule adjustment, now not only were consumers cold and tired from huddling in line, they were also missing Thanksgiving dinner and most of the rest of the day, too. The stakes, already high, were ratcheted up considerably.
Not even armed public safety officials were exempt from injury anymore. “Police officers descended on Walmart in Rialto, Calif. after a brawl between two men injured a police officer who tried to break up the fight Thursday night,” reported Doug Saunders of the San Bernadino County Sun Nov. 28. “The injured officer was transported to St. Bernardine Medical Center in San Bernardino with a broken wrist.” Another cop in Romeoville, Ill., got it even worse the same night. “The commotion began about 10 p.m. [Nov. 28] when police were alerted to a theft in progress at [Kohl’s],” reported Adam Sege and Juan Perez, Jr. in the Chicago Tribune Friday. “The police officers waited outside the store and soon saw two men bringing a shopping cart out of the store toward [a black Pontiac Sunfire]. … An officer caught up with [them] but the suspect ‘closed the car door on the officer’s arm, not allowing the officer to disengage from the vehicle. ... The driver then drove away, dragging the officer with the vehicle.’”
Any further lingering doubts about whether the free market has a conscience should have been answered by the state of Black Friday in 2013. Gigantic companies have invented an increasingly punishing capitalistic gauntlet pitting family traditions against pure greed.
The Christmas shopping season feels more like the Hunger Games than ever before. (Make sure you wipe the blood from that off-brand tablet before you wrap it!)
And the saddest part? This cultural degradation hasn’t even produced fiscal results. “A record 141 million people are expected to shop in stores and online over the four-day Thanksgiving …up from last year’s 137 million, according to the results of a survey of nearly 4,500 shoppers conducted for The National Retail Federation,” reported the AP Sunday. “But total spending is expected to fall for the first time ever since the trade group began tracking it in 2006, according to the survey that was released Sunday. Over the four days, spending fell an estimated 2.9 percent to $57.4 billion.” If you’re going to sell what little soul you have, corporate America, the least you could do is get a decent price.
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robaburg.